WASHINGTON — Though the House Financial Services Committee and Senate Banking Committee are eager to start holding hearings and implementing their agendas, both panels are — for now at least — stuck in a holding pattern.
Organizational hiccups in both chambers are preventing either committee from scheduling hearings, hiring staff or taking other steps forward.
"If anybody tells you they know what's going on, they are just guessing because no one knows what's going on," said an aide to a Senate Banking Committee member. "It's kind of 'hurry up and wait.' "
In the House, Rep. Spencer Bachus, now officially chairman of the Financial Services Committee, has been unable to move his staff into the committee office, which is still occupied by staff for outgoing chairman Rep. Barney Frank. Although the relocation is expected to be sorted out soon, the situation is indicative of the significant hurdles in the Alabama Republican's way.
Because Democrats have not yet convened essential organizational meetings and decided membership composition — including who will be ranking members of key subcommittees — Bachus cannot schedule hearings or do other committee business.
A House Democratic leadership aide said the caucus might organize this week but no final decision had been made.
The situation is far worse in the Senate. Though the House is likely to get itself organized by mid-January, the Senate was in session for only one day this week before taking a two-week recess.
As a result, Sen. Tim Johnson is not expected to be officially named chairman of the banking panel until late January or early February. Without a chairman, the committee cannot convene hearings and must wait for Senate leaders to determine its size and composition.
The committee had 13 Democrats and 10 Republicans in the last Congress, but after GOP gains in the Senate, this ratio is expected to change. The Democrats' advantage could shrink to as little as one seat, depending upon what Senate leaders decide.
In addition, because so many other elements are up in the air, the panel's budget has yet to be determined, making it difficult for Johnson to hire staff members and generally slowing the transition to a new chairman.
Observers said the delays, though a hassle, are to be expected in any new Congress with a change in party majority.
"I wouldn't say this is atypical," said Joseph Engelhard, a senior vice president at Capital Alpha Partners. "I was a staffer for the Republicans when they took over in '95. It really took the committee chairs, I'd say, a month and a half to get hold of the reins and get everybody on the subcommittees and the full committee staff working."
Other observers agreed that no matter how enthusiastic lawmakers sound to take on their pet issues, Congress seldom gets off to a quick start.
"Congress always starts off slowly — slower than had been talked about beforehand," said Bert Ely an independent analyst in Virginia. "My sense is, you may start to see some movement toward the end of January or into February, but things never start off as fast as everybody talks about. It's just the nature of the beast."
Other factors are in play, observers said. For one, the lame-duck session of the last Congress went late — Congress did not adjourn until Dec. 22 — and there is a sense that Democrats are dragging their heels in the House due to the change of control.
"Why this is a little unusual is because you had a lame-duck that was very active, so typically in between sessions, is when all the horse-trading of who's on what committee gets taken care of," said Lawrence Kaplan, a lawyer at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP, little got done organizationally. "Because staff and everybody was focused on substance, the administrative issues were put aside."
Though a slow start might be expected, the delays on Capitol Hill mean that the first policy move on financial services will probably be by the Obama administration, which is to release its plan to reform the government-sponsored enterprises this month.
"The big issue coming forward is GSE reform, and so to the extent that everybody is waiting for the administration to take the first step on that, that is probably another excuse to put off holding hearings," said Cornelius Hurley the director of the Morin Center for Banking and Financial Law at Boston University.
As the administration's proposal stands now, it could well be the opening salvo in a financial services policy debate this year.
"The delays in organizing are not in perpetuity because the administration has basically said they're coming out with their GSE stuff, and so as a result, we're talking about the committees of jurisdiction, and it's going to have to get addressed pretty quickly," said Kaplan, the Washington lawyer.